The tension escalated by media reporting which surrounded the preparation and conduct of the Russian-Belarus exercises Zapad 2017 has demonstrated the weak spots in Ukraine’s and West’s resilience towards information attacks targeting the sense of security and control over the situation on the borders of the Alliance.
While the information campaign built Zapad 2017into the existential threat, it is more important to look beyond the demonstration of military capabilities and understand the implicit strategic messages.
In the West, a highly publicized Russian-Belarusian military exercise was seen as an act of provocation. For Russia, it served both as a military training exercise and a story for the information campaign to keep the level of tensions high. Russia and Belarus initially stated that September’s Zapad 2017 would deploy around 12,700 troops mainly comprised of local Belarusian forces as to avoid international observance. However, higher levels of military cargo traffic suggest actual numbers may be closer to previous iterations of drills in which Russia fielded closer to 100,000 troops.
Yet, while the conflict and Russia’s involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine remain unresolved, any concentration of the Russian troops close Ukraine’s and NATO’s borders would not be perceived differently. Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has demonstrated its ability to use conventional military tools together with non-military means to assert influence and portray itself as a powerful military player.
During Zapad 2017, Russia exercised asymmetric, conventional and nuclear capabilities, notably staging a nuclear missile launch as well as practicing destabilizing operations (i.e. “little green men” scenario). Aside the content of the drills, the concentration of the Russian forces close to the borders of Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states raises concerns of a potential build-up of Russian military presence on the territory of Belarus. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have claimed that not all Russian troops deployed to Belarus for Zapad 2017 left the territory for the places of permanent stationing in Russia. Russia denied such allegations.
Ukraine’s main concern is that Zapad 2017 has provided Russia with the opportunity to evaluate cross-operational requirements with Belarus, including identifying future areas of military infrastructure investments such as airfields. Similarly, the exercise has allowed Russia to evaluate munition supplies necessary for any future deployment of Russian air defence systems on the territory of Belarus. The exercise also allowed Russia’s top military check the readiness of the Belarusian army to act under the command of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces.
Zapad 2017 reinforces Kyiv’s main strategic concern of being encircled by “Russia’s ring” comprised of territories with military subordination to Kremlin. Russia has succeeded in creating three fronts of potential penetration into the Ukrainian territory: occupied Crimea and Donbas in the country’s south and southeast, Transnistria to the southwest where Moscow continues to hold its troops, and Belarus on the northwestern border of Ukraine. Belarus’ strategic location could potentially close the “Russian ring”, thus almost surrounding Ukraine, and there is a somber understanding in Kyiv of Moscow’s strategic and tactical goals.
Ukraine has learned some tough lessons of coping with Russia’s hybrid methods in waging war. Having two parts of Ukraine’s territory under control, Russia retains leverage not solely over Kyiv but over Western capitals as well. And military exercises prove to be an efficient tool for shaping the information arena and thus raising the level of tensions. In March 2017, Russia launched unprecedented land, air, and sea drills in annexed Crimea involving thousands of troops. The drills were conducted without formal notification and ignited media frenzy in some Western nations. Subsequently, and in contrast to limited coverage of pervious drills, Russia invested in generating media interest in Zapad 2017. The exercise was designed to test both media and western public responses.
The biggest takeaway for Ukraine in the wake of Zapad 2017 is the demonstrated need to continue developing national resilience in the face of ongoing conventional and irregular security challenges. Progress in this regard will enable Ukraine to better mitigate the threat of encirclement by “Russia’s ring” and information attacks aimed at undermining Ukraine’s credibility among Western allies.
Although Zapad did not meet the expectations of many media commentators on Russia – its ultimate significance is that the exercise did demonstrate the high level of military and strategic integration with Belarus.
Ukraine’s partners in the West have an even more complex situation. While understanding the Russian threat some have still failed to eliminate vested business and political interests linked directly to the Russian Federation. This perpetuates trends of skepticism towards the EU and NATO. In summary, it is important to carefully evaluate the information campaign surrounding Zapad 2017 – its lessons should be applied to strengthening informational resilience and identifying future areas of potential vulnerability to Russia’s coercive influence.